About posthumanist therapy - in Q&A format [1]

Billie Holiday backstage at Sugar Hill 1957.Billie Holiday backstage at Sugar Hill 1957.

Two questions : Why therapy? And why posthumanist therapy?

OK second question first. Do you know what posthumanism is?

I can’t say I do. Is it like postmodernism?

Well yes and no — more no than yes probably. But the point is that we don’t really know what posthumanism is. It isn’t an ism’ in the way that postmodernism, or for that matter humanism, is. What is more interesting is to me is practice or praxis [2]. A posthumanist praxis opens up a space for speculation, a possibility for imagining what would be possible if…

If what?

Rosi Braidotti [3] speaks in terms of a posthuman predicament and puts it this way: We need to devise new social, ethical and discursive schemes of subject formation to match the profound transformations we are undergoing. That means that we need to learn to think differently about ourselves. I take the posthuman predicament as an opportunity to empower the pursuit of alternative schemes of thought, knowledge and self-representation. The posthuman condition urges us to think critically and creatively about who and what we are actually in the process of becoming.

So what is possible if you shift the focus away from the human, away from the ego, away from the self — away from difference as that which defines what you are, as that which determines how to decide what’s important. If you say, the more different you are from me the less important you are, then you’ve got a serious problem. And that is a personal as well as a political problem. And the personal is the political, as feminism has shown us.

That seems especially urgent now in the light of Trump and Brexit and ISIS and the rise of the right in Europe.

Yes exactly. Each of these movements’ (if they deserve that moniker and I’m not sure they do) begin with the self. They begin with one unhappy person who says I am unhappy and it’s not my fault.’ The other one is I am unhappy and it is my own fault’, but those people don’t vote for Trump. The people who think it’s their own fault that they are unhappy go into therapy or ought to. But the people who think it’s someone else’s fault that they are unhappy need therapy too, they need a different kind of therapy. And that is the answer to your first question. Everyone needs therapy, but everyone needs a different kind of therapy, because everyone’s unhappiness is unique. Note that I am not saying that this is an error. No one can truly understand another person’s suffering because it is unique to them. Each person’s suffering is infinitely complex. Posthumanist therapy, as I envisage it, asks: what kind of therapy becomes possible when you no longer put your self at the centre of everything, when you begin to see that not everything begins and ends with you.

So why post humanist?

Because politically, culturally if you zoom out as it were, or change the depth of field to use concepts from photography, if you change the focus away from the human being as the centre of everything, and you begin realise that your being, your existence, what you are, is relational. That it’s not how you are different from everyone and everything which determines what you are and how you are able to be but on your relationships with everything that is Other that determines how you are and what you are, then everything begins to change.

Every method, every discipline, every ideology, every political movement up to now has been and is reductive. It simplifies. It looks to what is the same, what is common, in order to determine what is important, and it negates differences and complexities. It is afraid of them. Therapeutic methods as well as religious and political movements are about making things appear more simple than they are, making things appear more stable than they actually are (which is dynamic, fluid, constantly in flux, ever changing), and that they can be controlled.

So how do we address this? How does one live in such a world?

That is the the biggest question facing the world right now. As well as each of us as individual subjects. It is a personal question. How to interpret such a world, how to engage with it, how to think about it.

And what is the answer?

Well it seems to me that since the beginning of time humans have used creative expression as a way of engaging with the world and I still think there is enormous potential there. Is it any coincidence that new materialism which offers important ways of thinking about making art. And the world of fiction, and nonfiction, and what I am calling postfiction, where writers can imagine different ways of being in the world or write about the possible ways in which we can organise the world come to mind. But we can also approach life and living itself as an artwork, this is an idea that has been raised by Foucault and others. And so philosophers and scientists, like quantum physicists (Karen Barad!) and all kinds of humanities scholars — but how we organise such a world is a political question and here feminists and queer theorists have been thinking about different kinds of relationality that are useful.

And this relates to humanism, how?

This is the space post humanism creates. Historically humanism is an essential link in this chain, but perhaps humans are now beginning to be able to imagine a world beyond that, to imagine living in a world where everything is important, where every relationship between every thing, living and non-living, conscious not conscious (why do we privilege consciousness?) big and small is important. (size is such an obvious marker of difference, if you’re very small you don’t matter unless you’re cute in which case we will select a few of you to be cute for us but if you’re ugly forget it and if you are really big you’ve got other problems.)

How do we negotiate such a world?

Well the project of posthumanism is just beginning and we have to work that out together. It may be impossible. But we have to recognise that it is impossible to continue the way we are, individually and collectively. All systems have failed. All ideologies have failed and as individuals we are failing every day every minute of every day. We are unhappy. We are unethical. We are causing suffering. This has to stop. And this is the why of therapy. If you are hurting — if you have been hurt — you hurt others, consciously or unconsciously, inadvertently or deliberately.

Is there a specific approach a methodology to the kind of therapy you practise?

No. My training is in narrative therapy and I am interested in how someone’s concept or narrative about themselves is formed and can change, but I don’t employ the techniques of narrative therapy. I would say my practice is more informed by my work with dying people and people who want to die. I respond to each person I work with in a way that I think/feel is necessary or appropriate for them with everything that I have to give, all my experience in working with people and training and my thinking about these issues.

Working with dying people and people who want to die, that sounds grim.

Interesting word, grim’ but not one that I would choose. I’m tempted to ask you more about that but perhaps this is not the time. We don’t talk about it much but we are all of us dying. In one sense we begin to die as soon as we begin to live, but it happens comparatively slowly, and we usually only become aware of what it means to be mortal gradually as we get older, or when it is happening too fast as with a cancer diagnosis, or when we no longer want to live for whatever reason, and there are many.

Why do you think people commit suicide?

Again I think it is interesting to examine the words we use. If someone commits an act of violence against themselves (and inevitably others who are hurt by someone taking their own life) it may be appropriate to say commit’ but there are many people who would use a non-violent ay to end their lives if it was available to them. Because like it or not there are people who don’t want to live anymore. Or as the Dutch poet Rogi Wieg said, it’s not that they want to die it is that they don’t want the life that they have — because it is unbearable to them.

In the Netherlands where I live now there is a proposal for a new law which will allow people who are of a certain age who are tired of life or who feel that their life is completed to request drugs to end their lives in a non-violent way. Nevertheless I suspect that there may be people who, if they had access to a good therapist, might make their life bearable or indeed enjoyable again, who could feel like they are of use, that they had something to contribute. But you can’t force that on people. To go back to your question, I think people choose to end their lives for a wide and complex range of reasons, sometimes rational, sometimes irrational, but for most people who want to end their lives wit is unbearable to live, to be who they are. Why is that? We have to ask that question and we have to give people the opportunity to talk about what it is like for them in a non-judgemental way. The minute someone mentions they might be suicidal alarm bells start ringing and men in white coats appear and all kinds of panic breaks out. Facebook now has an algorithm to determine whether you might be suicidal based on your posts on Facebook but also on what kinds of websites you are looking at or what you search for. And then they send you a FB message. We have to make it possible for people to talk about the fact that their lives are unbearable to them, that who they are is unbearable for them, that they are unable to cope with life, that they don’t know how to be a person. Many many people have these feelings. For some people these feelings pass, for others they never do and they don’t feel safe talking about it.

We need not only new forms of therapy and new ways of thinking about these issues which do not force people and their feelings into the same old pigeonholes, we need different ways of relating to people and living and non-living things.

[1] This may seem artificial, but here I employ a format that I find useful in focussing my thinking, to imagine an interlocutor. It enables me to think of a question someone might ask in response to what I’ve said and I also incorporate and recycle actual things that people have said or asked me in the past, to inform these questions and respond to them in a way that I may not have been able at the time. [2] praxis is not only a Dutch DIY chainstore but a process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized.’ [3] The Posthuman — Rosi Braidotti (Polity 2013)